SP-4302 Adventures in Research: A History of Ames Research Center 1940-1965

 

PART II : A NEW WORLD OF SPEED : 1946-1958

[271] 1958

 

13

The Environment

 

[273] ALTHOUGH both the United States and the Soviet Union had in 1955 announced plans for launching satellites, the appearance of Sputnik I on October 4 and of Sputnik II on November 3, 1957, came as a tremendous shock to much of the civilized world. A door now opened on new vistas for man's exploration, a new and inviting frontier lay open to world scientists and engineers, and the human spirit was quickened by the realization that man had suddenly acquired the power to escape from his planet.

Cutting briskly through dreams of grandeur came sobering thoughts of where the Sputnik launchings placed us vis-a-vis the Russians. Sputniks I and II revealed that the capacity of Russian rockets was far beyond anything we had or were likely to have for years to come. And their techniques for the launching and control of large rockets were clearly also far advanced. In meeting this challenge there was no time to lose.

Confronted with this combination of spiritually inspiring and competitively stimulating prospects, the American people required no further convincing that a major space-research effort, costly though it would assuredly be, should promptly be undertaken. The only questions were: of what should the effort be composed and by whom should it be administered?

The space-research operation was a tempting plum for any organization: scientific, military, or political. It offered much of sound scientific interest but also glamour, glory, and not least of all, power. It is not surprising therefore that many organizations reached out to share in, if not to dominate, the operation. The like had not often been seen of the scrambling, infighting, behind-the-scenes campaigning, and political scheming by which Government agencies and their various supporters sought to influence the trend of events.

Each agency claiming a share in the space program marshaled its arguments as best it could. One of the major contenders for the privilege of running the space show was the Department of Defense; indeed, each of the three services appeared willing to take on the job individually and each was competing with the other two services as well as with the civilian interests.

[274] The Navy, of course, was already heavily involved in the Vanguard satellite project. The Army had perhaps given earlier and more thought to the design of satellites than had either of the other two services. The Air Force was building the rocket motors most likely to be used in a space program, was in command of the Atlantic Missile Range, and was perhaps the most aggressive and powerful and certainly not the least ambitious of the three services.

On the civilian side, the National Academy of Sciences under whose IGY Committee the Vanguard project had been organized had a serious interest in any national space program and, together with the American Rocket Society, gave evidence that it favored the establishment of a new civilian-oriented national space research agency. President Eisenhower, in founding the American IGY satellite project, had indicated a desire to avoid the militarization of space and had shown some concern over the possible adverse reaction of other countries to an American satellite launched by the military with a ballistic-missile rocket.

Other civilian agencies interested in sharing in or controlling the Nation's space effort were the Atomic Energy Commission and NACA. AEC's chief qualification for the job seemed to lie in its experience in managing big projects and in its control of promising sources of power for future spacecraft. It also enjoyed the strong backing of Senator Clinton Anderson and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Many of the NACA staff believed that their organization was best qualified and equipped to take the lead in space research. Moreover, they felt that since space research was a logical extension of NACA's current work, the organization's future would be dim indeed if it was not allowed an important share in the new enterprise. But NACA management appreciated that the challenge of space was large and to meet it would require a diversity of talents. Accordingly, in January 1958 Dr. Dryden, speaking for NACA, proposed that the Nation's space program be jointly undertaken by DOD, NACA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation together with the universities, research institutions, and industry of the Nation.

Despite the powerful sales efforts of the military, the predominating feeling seemed to be that, aside from such few military applications of space vehicles as seemed likely to develop, the majority of the Nation's space programs would be scientifically oriented and thus might best be controlled by a civilian agency. President Eisenhower's recently reconstituted Scientific Advisory Committee seemed to share this belief.

The military, however, had by no means given up. Early in 1958 DOD formed the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to manage the military, and hopefully the Nation's, space research program. It was noted that while the head and many of the staff of ARPA were civilians, the agencies that would carry out ARPA's programs were our old friends, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. ARPA appeared to be a possible means for [275] curbing the rampant space rivalry of the individual military services. In any case, ARPA received the endorsement of President Eisenhower and moved ahead with great alacrity.

Space organizational matters had reached something of a climax and a feeling of uneasiness was prevalent in civilian circles. DOD was off and running with the ball while other fronts appeared disappointingly quiet. But the multitudinous forces involved, though exceedingly diverse, did have a prevailing direction and decision-making action began to take place. This action became definitive when, on March 5, 1958, President Eisenhower approved the recommendation of his Advisory Committee on Government Organization that the "leadership of the civil space effort be lodged in a strengthened and redesigned National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics." It became still more definitive when, on April 2, draft legislation establishing a new National Aeronautics and Space Administration, using NACA as a nucleus, was sent to Congress. The act establishing NASA, known as the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, was passed by the Congress and signed by President Eisenhower on July 29, 1958. The conversion of NACA to NASA was to take place in 90 days or sooner if appropriately proclaimed by NASA's appointed Administrator.

Throughout all of these proceedings, the members of the NACA research staff were very enthusiastic about the prospects of undertaking space research and very keen to have their organization take the lead in the space effort. Thus they were generally elated with the final outcome yet, at the same time, somewhat apprehensive over their own future and that of NACA. They were all dimly aware that mighty changes were at hand. NACA had begun action to assume its expected space role well before the Space Act was passed. It had in November 1957 authorized the establishment of a new space technology committee to plan a space research program. At about the same time it initiated plans for a revision of its Headquarters organization to accommodate space-research requirements. By the time the Space Act was passed, action on both of these matters was well advanced.

The dawning of 1958 at the laboratories found their members operating in a bittersweet atmosphere of sadness and elation. The end of a comfortable, if somewhat impoverished, old NACA appeared to be in sight; yet future prospects, though uncertain, were most exciting. Clearly the pattern of operation of the Laboratory was in for a major change: things would never be the same again. But change is a basic ingredient of research and the year's work was undertaken with zest. The general excitement of the times was heightened with the launching of the U.S. Explorer I satellite on January 31, 1958, and Explorer III on March 26, 1958. However, Sputnik III was put into orbit on May 15, 1958, and the space race, though not Officially acknowledged, became nevertheless a matter of pressing reality.


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